Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Bothersome Man (2006)

***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.*** 

The titular bothersome man by the name of Andreas arrives at a strange looking, isolated location, with a welcome sign put up especially for him at a solitary gas station. He looks around, appears lost, but doesn't question anything outright. His confusion and perplexed stares don't last very long and before he knows it, he has a fine job, a fine apartment and a fine girlfriend in a plush, polished city that looks spectacularly ideal....on the surface at least!

Very soon, Andreas begins to realize that there is something grossly amiss, and a lot is quite sinister in this new place. The food lacks any real taste, the alcohol doesn't get him high, and everyone around him, including his girlfriend, is rather emotionally sterile! So what's really going on here?

Norwegian filmmaker Jens Lien delivers the clues but doesn't give straight answers to Andreas' situation in his "The Bothersome Man" (2006). Lien's film is a darkly comic, surreal meditation on urban alienation and a frightening vision of a society desensitized by a consumerist culture.

Andreas finds himself in an overwhelmingly stoic world that he attempts to adapt to, but can't help but carry a perpetually baffled look. Actor Trond Fausa Aurvåg displays this with an  accurately comical expression of bewilderment and a lost sense of reality, similar to an insomniac Edward Norton in "Fight Club" (1999). Everything around Andreas is rather robotic. A couple at the train station engage in a sloppy kiss with blank expressions, devoid of any real emotional connect. People seem to carry fake plastic smiles all the time, and even when they are joking around lunch or dinner, they are merely discussing what furniture to buy from a catalog (in another nod to "Fight Club").

His girlfriend becomes his girlfriend rather casually, and they engage in a ridiculously mechanical sexual act. All she ever seems to care about is furniture and interior decoration. Every scene she is in, she is either talking about or is around some decorative piece of furniture. And when she isn't doing that, she is seen watching furniture ads on TV! Even when they have guests at home, all they talk about is the home decor.

Andreas begins to get increasingly bored of this single-track mentality and a total disinterest in any other more meaningful talk, or any kind of exchange on a personal level from anyone around. A man who apparently jumps to his death is found stuck to a fence, his intestines sticking out. This scene is received rather calmly by the individuals around. No one seems to care. In a movie hall, during a very sentimental scene, it is only Andreas who seems to be quite touched, while the others look on like zombies!

In a Bunuel-esque exaggeration, fitting to the surreal nature of the narrative, Lien does not keep the lack of soul limited to the people. He extends it to the environment and practically everything contained in it. The food they consume is bland; the alcoholic drinks they down seem to lack any effectiveness. And shockingly, all this seems to bother only a handful few, Andreas being one, and one other mysterious individual rambling away in the toilet.

When another girl at his office, who initially seems warmer, reveals herself to be just as insensitive, Andreas gets weary and realizes that he doesn't belong there. But there seems to be no escaping his situation, as is illustrated in a hilariously freaky, but disturbing sequence involving a subway train. The subway scene, and the central theme of a man who finds himself in a nightmarish universe is reminiscent of Adrian Lyne's brilliant psychological thriller "Jacob's Ladder" (1990).

So what is this peculiar place, really? One way to look at it is that it's a myth-breaking representation of paradise, a paradise that everyone seeks, but one that isn't really the most ideal place to be. Or perhaps it is what Andreas achieves as a result of his quest for a personal utopia. It is the manifestation or the final shape attained by his desires, although it doesn't quite turn out to be in tune with his envisioning. What he got instead, was a tasteless world, a world with life sucked out of it.

He ended up with an outcome of a pursuit that was really meaningless and empty; a pursuit of a false happiness through worldly desires, materialistic gains, something that doesn't really spell happiness in the end. While most others in this society, thrive on a false sense of security achieved through these very material gains, content that they have found their utopia, our protagonist is awakened, and seeks to escape to find his own utopia which perhaps, doesn't exist anymore. In the process of chasing the so-called good life, he has left behind the actual good life, which he now longs to go back to.

And therefore, does the discovery of a mysterious hole in the wall give him new hope? A crack that oddly resembles a vagina, an opening that emanates a pleasant smell and lilting music, and somehow seems to give vibes of life. The hole is perhaps symbolic of a gateway to the womb, back into a quaint little motherly kitchen, with the golden sun shining bright, sounds of chirpy children in the background, and a sweet tasting cake lying on the table. What's more, the location of the hole is an apartment building occupied mostly by old timers; suggestive of the last link to the old school! Perhaps Andreas yearns to go back and start over; reclaim the lost paradise, taste the real good life again.

But is there a way back? Or is he trapped in a state of no return, in a never-ending search for a paradise that he may never see? Another journey commences, another transportation, ending up in a world that seems to be a lot more colder than this; and a blizzard seems to await him! Will it ever end for Andreas?

"The Bothersome Man" is a challenging but fun film that is entertaining, visually enticing as well as thematically rich, enough to please any hardcore cinephile. Screenwriter Per Schreiner and filmmaker Jens Lien give us lucky viewers a lot to chew on and a lot to admire in this finely crafted, enigmatic gem.

Score: 9/10

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Hunger (1966)

"All is lost, ladies and gentlemen, all is lost!", Pontus screams hysterically in the middle of the street, inviting more of those never-ending, curious stares from passersby. Pontus, a gaunt, bespectacled man, now almost over the edge with his gradually deteriorating mental faculties is the pitiable soul at the center of Danish filmmaker Henning Carlsen's "Hunger" (1966). This is a harrowing portrait of a defeated, down-on-his-luck writer, reduced to a lonely, penniless wanderer, with nothing to eat and no permanent roof over his head. The viewer becomes a mute spectator, as the hunger in Pontus' stomach systematically begins to eat away into his sanity...

An air of gloom and desperation almost instantly engulfs us at the onset of the film. A creepy background score accompanies the scene in which we are introduced to Pontus (Per Oscarsson), a man of thin build, standing over a bridge, observing the water below and scribbling something away on a single piece of paper with a small pencil. The paper and the pencil are his only possessions, aside from a quilt which he keeps in his dingy old rented place, the rent of which, he has not been able to pay for an unknown period of time. The scribblings are possibly the beginnings of a new masterpiece, or simply delusional musings of a man who isn't able to think straight. It appears, that the latter is true, for Pontus goes on to promptly tear that piece of paper up and attempt to swallow it!

On the surface, "Hunger" is a film that focuses on an impoverished character struggling to survive in the city of Oslo. This film is, however, quite different from the Italian neo-realist films of Vittorio De Sica. Carlsen's main focus is not the tribulations of Pontus but rather on the disastrous effect of his miserable state on his mind. His sufferings are distressing to say the least, but they serve as vehicles in outlining his mental imbalance, worsened upon being torn apart between poverty and a sense of pride which he refuses to compromise on, even if it comes at the cost of lies.

Pontus is without money or a morsel of food in his stomach, and yet just to show that he is not one of them, he quickly pawns something in order to offer some alms to a homeless man. He has but one pair of clothing on him, a coat, a trousers, and a hat that he so religiously doffs in an attempt to appear sophisticated. Upholding his dignity is of utmost importance to him, and he wouldn't so much as touch a free meal even offered by an old acquaintance, if only to not let it out that he is in need of any kind, including his pining for some grub.

He would rather feed off the dust in an old cupboard, or chew on discarded bones from a meat packing factory! Of course, this he would do quite surreptitiously, and promptly go on to hide if he feels he is being watched. It's a heartbreaking scene, and yet while some part of us would back his will to preserve his honour, it is troubling to see him refusing help when it comes his way. Even when it comes to self-respect, how much is too much?

Pontus is a delusional man, perhaps living in denial, refusing to accept that he has been reduced to this. It is hinted later in the film that he once had a good life, which he is now deprived of. He meets acquaintances who recognize him from a time not so distant, indicating he has been reclusive and aloof from the public eye owing to facing failure, but is not quite ready to admit it, perhaps in the hope of regaining his lost paradise.

This inability to cope with a setback and a feeble mind that is a product of an empty stomach give way to hallucinations and sudden bursts of hysteria. These are often accompanied by those abundant muscular twitches, an inherent part of Pontus' body language that manifest to a greater degree, when he is at his most honest, whilst delivering a tirade. He is quite vocal about this honesty too, even unable to eat a meal bought out of accidental money he receives owing to a shopkeeper's mistake.

Pontus strikes conversations with random people, tries to make a pass at a beautiful girl (Gunnel Lindblom) in a rather awkward fashion, knocks at strangers' doors and asks for completely made up names claiming he has an errand or an appointment of some sort. A touch of humour is added to the proceedings, when he always asks the cops the time, every time they so much as approach him for seemingly suspicious behaviour. This is his only connect with other human beings, the momentary escape from his loneliness which often gets the better of him and he talks to himself or even to his feet!

The camera hovers about Pontus most of the time, and at times his face looks directly at the camera; a steely gaze that seems to eerily lock eyes with the viewers, daring them look away and almost evoking a sense of guilt. How many times have we seen people on the streets talking to themselves and either greeted them with stares, or walked away from them? Could one of them be suffering like Pontus does? Carlsen gives us food for thought, and a chance to take a look from the other side. It doesn't get much more accurate than this.

Carlsen's film, is a bleak masterpiece, a film so soaked in tragedy that it seems like there is no escape from the despair and madness, especially since, for those 110 odd minutes, we almost follow Pontus' every move in his miserable existence. The film is shot in stark black and white adding to the atmosphere of haplessness. Despite having a destitute character at its center, Carlsen completely eschews any heightened melodrama, and designs his film as a doom-laden, psychological mood piece.

And at the heart of it all, is the extremely talented Per Oscarsson, whose weak frame carries the film on his able shoulders with such finesse, it is difficult to tell whether he is even acting. This is one unforgettable performance that deserves to go down in history as one of the greatest lead acts in film ever.

Score: 10/10

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Anguish (1987)

"All the eyes of the city will be ours!"

Now this one came out of nowhere and managed to sink its claws firmly into the psyche, somewhat reflecting the occurrences in its bizarre story. Spanish filmmaker Bigas Luna taps some of the classic horror essentials in a tribute of sorts and demonstrates the true power of cinema in a manner that is effective enough to get under your skin.

It is quite difficult to outline the plot synopsis of "Anguish" (1987) without spoiling some of the fun, but as an entry point in order to pique the interest of the viewer/reader, it is sufficient to say that what we are dealing with are at least two parallel stories, occurring in two different universes. One of the major narrative strands deals with a psychotic old mother, Ms. Pressman, the fabulously over the top Zelda Rubinstein, who sends her only son John (Michael Lerner), an optometrist, out to murder people via hypnosis and mind control, so that he can gouge their eyes out and bring them home to add to her eye-collection!

In a separate narrative, a disturbingly violent film playing in the theater begins to have an effect on its audiences, with many of them showing visible signs of discomfort and anxiety. In particular, a teenage girl in the audience suspects something grossly wrong as she begins to feel giddy and senses a sinister, murdering presence lurking within the theater. Incidentally, the film playing on screen also depicts a murderous psychopath storming a movie theater....

Bigas Luna bases his film on a gimmick that thankfully doesn't come off as forced or cheap and justifies its presence in the context of his story. The result is a cracker of a film with intertwined tales, intelligent juxtapositions and narrative ideas that are wholly original, despite stylistic borrowings from Italian horror maestros Dario Argento (in the visuals, lighting effects, atmosphere) and Lucio Fulci (in the gore department), albeit with a lot of polish, enhanced production values and crisp photography, that saves "Anguish" from the B-movie tackiness.

The segment involving mother Pressman and her son John, in particular boasts of some of the finest hypnotic imagery and the most imaginative sound design ever; something that David Lynch would surely be proud of. In a particularly disorienting scene of brainwashing, there are some trippy visuals and sonic effects that literally mess with your head and throw you in a trance. The Pressmans' home decor itself renders a surrealistic touch, what with its collection of strange artefacts, small birds and animals including metaphorical snails the mother uses to describe her son ("Hiding, happy..") in a mantra in one of her procedures. The insanity, the dominating mother, the weirdo son and the birds, all combine to form a nice little Hitchcock homage as well.

The setting and premise of the other narrative thread of the movie theater does bring to mind Lamberto Bava's horror classic "Demons" (1985), but Luna's film definitely trumps it in almost every department by a huge margin, if not the gore department. That isn't to discredit the gore in Luna's film; it is very much there in adequate doses, and some of the sequences are downright quease-inducing!

The references are not limited to other cinematic works but to cinema itself, as a medium that is capable of enslaving the audiences who are willing to submit themselves to its immersive power. Cinema has the ability to transport the viewer to another time and place. 

An involving film makes the viewer a part of the narrative, and with "Anguish", Luna takes this idea several steps further and makes it literal. Boundaries are crossed, and mediums collapse upon each other, rendering the distinction invisible. The choice of eyes as Ms Pressman's collectibles and the quote above are not random. Eyes is the primary means of perception and with Ms Pressman owning the eyes, the film in Luna's film and Luna's film itself owns its respective audiences!

John Carpenter pulled off the idea of crossing the barrier between the dimensions of fiction and reality really well in his "In the Mouth of Madness" (1994). In that film, the power of written fiction has an effect on its fans and they go insane. Luna's film came seven years before Carpenter's and, albeit not explicitly, Luna dabbles with a similar idea, with a very inventive film-within-film-within-film trope that works brilliantly. Luna also juggles multiple narrative threads quite skilfully as they meld or cross paths in some meticulous editing choices, often throwing the viewer off guard by almost obfuscating the line between distinct narratives and in this case, even between celluloid and actuality!

Michael Lerner and Zelda Rubinstein add to the delight of the film with their outstanding performances, mixing deliciously creepy and darkly hilarious together, acts that they clearly seem to be enjoying, while the teen girls in the theater and other cast members somehow disappoint with their half-baked acts and stilted mannerisms and line delivery.

The acting in the theater segment doesn't become so much an eyesore however, thanks to Luna's handling of the material that rises above the problem areas. He keeps it all considerably tense by constantly playing with the viewers' minds and expectations with disconcerting imagery, remarkable sound effects and startling plot shifts, eventually culminating in an unpredictable and chilling finale that aptly reflects the old idiom, "It's not over, 'til it's over", and compels you to stick around till the final credit roll.

Score: 8/10